Is it a mad, bad, Amazon world?

Do you know, I really don’t mind that Amazon is being allowed to acquire the Book Depository* by the UK office of fair trading. Competition is a healthy thing, and it would have been better if the BD could have carried on in business independently. But as it couldn’t, the acquisition is not a bad thing – certainly not the horror some have portrayed it to be. Amazon has been around for a while now and as a reader I have benefitted from its presence immensely. (As have customers using or buying content from Amazon’s other partners, such as the Internet Movie Database, LoveFilm or Audible.)

Similarly, I don’t mind that Amazon is publishing books. As a reader, I can judge an Amazon book just as easily as any other kind of book. Existing publishers may see this as a threat just as booksellers have suffered at the hands of Amazon – through not acting quickly enough themselves to provide the service to their readers that Amazon came along and did instead.

Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t believe in monopolies and I would prefer it that Amazon’s competitors could equal or better its service. But so far, Amazon has done a pretty good job for readers. I might like it to do things a bit differently in some details, eg provide a translated fiction category, or ensure that independently published books are more clearly delineated from self-published books. But these are details. Amazon isn’t just about making vast amounts of money (its recent figures show just how much it has invested in e-readers at the expense of profits), it is about customer service. It has always encouraged customer rankings and comments on its website, long before most sales sites ever dreamed of it – and I, as a reader, also benefit from this, or I can ignore the social side of Amazon if I like, it is up to me. Buying books at Amazon is simple and pleasant, and if the price goes down between ordering and delivery, they drop it to the lower price (how many “street” booksellers would price-match an ordered book in this way? It has never happened to me).

Like many people, I love browsing in bookshops – an opportunity that is increasingly rare in many UK towns that have only a Waterstone’s branch or not even that. Yet I flinch at paying twice as much for a book today in a “real” bookshop that I know I can get on Amazon tomorrow. I like the fact that if one of my daughters wants an obscure, out-of-print book “The Last Years of Austria-Hungary: A Multi-national Experiment in Early Twentieth-century Europe (Exeter Studies in History)” I can get it next day from Amazon whereas if I email the publisher direct to enquire how to get hold of it I receive no response after an initial acknowledgement. I like the fact that I can obtain “The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism” the day after another daughter asks me about it one evening – another out of print book that is available for one-third of the list price, new, at Amazon via a third-party seller at no postage cost if you are in Amazon Prime. If I wanted this book and went to a real bookshop, I would not experience this service.

Amazon reminds me of our poor milkman, who tried to stop us cancelling our delivery 15 years ago, when we finally gave up on him. Despite his service promises, he regularly arrived after we had left for work in the morning, hence consigning us to discovering sour milk outside our door in the evenings as there was no method to stop late deliveries, leaving us milk-less (these were the days when all the shops in a 5-mile radius were closed by the time we got home in the evening). He charged twice the price of the supermarkets. He told us that if everyone cancelled their milk deliveries his industry would collapse and the supermarkets would up their prices to more than he was charging. This has not, yet, turned out to be true. Not only that, but we now have the choice of five supermarkets (four of them small ones) within walking distance that sell milk and stay open until quite or very late at night. I hope that I can have the same faith in Amazon. At any rate, excuse me for not joining in the general condemnation of the Amazon-Book Depository merger.

* From PaidContent: Despite industry organizations’ fears that Amazon’s acquisition of UK online bookseller The Book Depository will create a de facto monopoly, the Office of Fair Trading is approving the merger. In the OFT’s view, The Book Depository is so small that Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) is not buying a real competitor. The OFT found that “Amazon’s share of the UK online book market was strong,” but TBD’s accounted for only “between two and four percent of online retailing” of hardcover books in the UK. The OFT also said that most of TBD’s growth was taking place in overseas markets, not in the UK.